Check the Rules Before the Refit

Mar 24, 2022 by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Planning for that long-awaited and much-needed refit? Perhaps it was an unplanned trip to the drydock due to an emergency? Regardless of the reason, when dealing with a yard period, it is important to remember that changes to the yacht can affect the current or future status. It is the responsibility of the owner, through his captain and crew, to comply with all applicable rules, while ensuring a safe work environment.


The first reference to be made by the yacht is any flag state regulations. Depending upon the yacht’s registration, the flag state may have rules that affect the refit plans. These rules can range from radio equipment modifications to removing a door, or even some new carpet. It is important that the flag state’s rules are referenced to ensure continued compliance.

For yachts flying the U.S. flag, the best source of information is the Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs). For other flag states, such as the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, or Jamaica, the REG Yacht Code (formerly Large Yacht Code) may be applicable.

It is especially important to not only consider the current use of the yacht, but also its future. On many yachts that are “private,” it is assumed that most regulations are not applicable and anything goes. This is not usually the case. Furthermore, a modification completed now, if not done in accordance with the rules, may affect future use of the yacht. Especially important to older yachts, certain changes can eliminate a previously “grandfathered” allowance. It may also have a negative effect on the resale value.

In a recent example, a 164-foot (50m) motor yacht was undergoing a quick refit following a change of owner. With the addition of a towed tender and significant water toys, the captain hired an additional crew member. However, the existing berthing arrangements were not sufficient. It was decided that a new cabin would be created in a section of the lazarette. Unfortunately, the cabin designers and builders did not incorporate the minimum size specifications outlined in the Maritime Labour Code (MLC). In addition, the space was not certified for crew berthing, as there were numerous dangers, including machinery, electrical panels, and a fixed CO2 firefighting system. By installing this cabin without prior flag state approval, the cabin was declared as condemned. The captain was instructed by the flag state to remove the cabin and return the space to its original condition, which meant a lot of time and money lost.   


For those yachts that are classed by a particular society, it is important to ensure that the refit plans are within their rules. Each society can have stipulations for items that range from hull penetrations like underwater lights to satellite domes that may affect stability.

It is especially important to remember that regardless of the classification society, each of them has wording in their terms and conditions referencing unapproved modifications. With rare reversal, class societies can automatically suspend a yacht’s classification, even retroactively. The old approach of “do it and ask for permission later” will not work. And my personal favorite, “that’s how it has always been,” is not going to remedy the situation either.

In another recent example, a 130-foot (40m) yacht was replacing its generators. The engineer was told by the vendor that because the new generators were basically the same and below 130 kW in power, it was not necessary to obtain class approval. The engineer did not verify these statements and the yacht was suspended from class once the unapproved modification was discovered.


Depending upon where the refit is located, that country will have its own regulations for the protection of shipyard workers. In the U.S., that agency is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As all readers can attest, the work environment during a refit is far from comfortable. It is the responsibility of the shipyard, subcontractor, and yacht to provide a safe and healthful work environment. This may require limited access controls, personal protective equipment, use of a marine chemist, or specific hazardous training.

Monetary fines from OSHA can be hefty. However, when one reviews the history of those fines, it is almost always after a serious injury or fatality. In over 90% of those situations, the root cause was determined to be preventable.

While a refit project is most often focused on returning the yacht to a pristine cosmetic condition, it cannot be forgotten that there are many steps to get to that point. As the old “5-P” adage goes, proper planning prevents poor performance.